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Editor's Recommendations - August 1998
by Gordon Van Gelder

Two fascinating cultural histories head up this month's reading. First is Screams of Reason by David J. Skal (Norton). Skal's last cultural history, The Monster Show, traced the cultural history of horror; this new book focuses on scientists (mad or otherwise) and it's as fascinating, entertaining, well-written, and provocative as The Monster Show, with lots of new insights into popular science (fraudulent or not) as seen through various lenses of art.

When I told a colleague I was reading Thomas M. Disch's new book on science fiction, he asked me right off, "How many nails does he drive into the coffin?" But I actually find The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of (The Free Press) to be the one thing I've read this year that fills me most with hope. The book's an excellent overview of SF's role in America during the past century. This sort of analysis is usually written by outsiders who get the basics wrong, but Disch knows whereof he writes and even when I think he's wrong (as in his dismissal of Mary Shelley), I find the argument interesting. The book ends with the anticipated gloomy prediction for SF, but I'm elated by the fact that so knowledgeable a critic as Disch has missed so much. Little of the exciting fiction from the past ten years registers here - the SF noir of Jonathan Lethem and Jack Womack don't even make blips on the radar screen, to name but two of many - and when I think of the many overlooked SF writers who aren't derivative of Heinlein or Asimov, I find myself anticipating the new shapes SF will take in the next century enthusiastically.

One of Disch's assertions is that SF originated with Edgar Allan Poe. The detailed argument points out that Poe was America's original magazinist - short fiction was his primary mode. By this thinking, it's easy to see both Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon as descendants of E.A.P.'s. Edgeworks 4 (White Wolf Borealis) reassembles two more volumes, Beast That Shouted Love . . . and Love Aint't Nothing But Sex Misspelled, into a hefty bargain with many of Ellison's best, including a couple of stories that haven't been collected before. Thunder and Roses (North Atlantic Books) is volume number four of Theodore Sturgeon's collected stories and also includes some surprises like "The Blue Letter" mixed in with classics like "Maturity." The story notes add immensely to the reading pleasure.

While ultimately not of the same stature as Ellison and Sturgeon, Reginald Bretnor spun many damned fine stories, so it's nice to see that a new publishing outfit has collected fifteen stories in The Timeless Tales of Reginald Bretnor (Story Books, 385 Hawk Road, Medford, OR 97501). If you think the late Mr. Bretnor wrote only pun stories, pick up this delightful book and see what you've missed. I particulary recommend "Bug-Getter" to anyone who doesn't like our reviews.

For an interesting look at how novels feed off of short stories, try R. García y Robertson's story "The Other Magpie" in his collection The Moon Maid (Golden Gryphon) and then see how the author's fasciantion for the battle of Little Big Horn grew into his novel American Woman (Forge). (Just to make matters murkier, the novel actually grew out of another short story, "Happy Hunting Ground.") García's love of history shines in all his work, as does his enthusiasm for adventure. The packaging of American Woman emphasizes the story's Western aspects, so you might have to hunt the shelves for it.

A few recent collections worth reading include Clones edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois (Ace), which covers the subject with nine good stories, The Fantasy Hall of Fame edited by Robert Silverberg (HarperPrism), which collects outright thirty gems, and Nebula Awards 32 edited by Jack Dann (Harcourt Brace), which is another fine entry in a series that has never disappointed.

And finally two from slightly outside the field. Philip José Farmer's Nothing Burns in Hell (Forge) is a very funny, pulpy, violent pastiche of the detective novel. It ought to play well in Peoria, since it's set there. And when one of my colleagues at St. Martin's told me that Ron Goulart's new mystery would be Groucho Marx, Master Detective, I waggled my eyebrows and said "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard." Not so; Groucho makes a good gumshoe. The plots take the back seat in both books, with the funnier aspects at the wheel, and that's just fine by me.

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